Years ago, comedian Bill Murray was
talking with the press about great careers, longevity, and what really
defines success. Murray had had several hits at the time, made good
money, was considered for practically every big-budget comedy script in
town, and by any Hollywood standard was the envy of his peers.
"But I want to last," Murray said with almost existential emphasis. "I want to be like the great old dogs of this business. Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Kirk Douglas. People who built these life-long careers and did it with good work, not just a cameo in High Noon: The Teen Years
for a check to remind people they were still breathing. But it’s
tricky. You’ve got to choose the right things. Dignity is essential to
a great career and you can blow that pretty easy in this business."
boozy Swedish golf cart ride notwithstanding, his quote kept crossing
my mind as I kicked around town talking to friends, colleagues, and
sometimes adversaries of Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, the remarkably
influential and durable couple often dubbed "political kingmakers" by
the media and their peers. I don’t know if Murray has had a political
thought in his life, but he was clearly searching for the qualities
that acquire and sustain credibility and influence.
In the case
of the Kaplans, as Murray did with the long-time Hollywood players he
referred to, you come to understand that their demeanor and choices
have defined them. Their personal qualities, both sweet and sour, as
expressed toward each other, friends, politicos, and foes, and played
out in the rarified, often acidic spotlight of the political and
moneyed elite of the Twin Cities, have contributed in no small part to
their image-an image other influence traders might consider using as a
model, if they can balance the same combination of ideological passion
and emotional maturity.
I first sat down with Sam and Sylvia Kaplan on a brutally cold morning last February. By the crack of dawn they were seated at their table in a corner of the Minneapolis Club,
where they are almost every weekday morning. There was a steady flow of
people, including the likes of former councilman Dennis Schulstad,
stopping by to greet them and trade news of the previous twenty-four
hours, jump-starting the new day. The Kaplans make a good visual pair.
Sam projects both the appearance and demeanor of a Hollywood patriarch.
The full head of tousled-to-unruly silver hair and the athletic trim of
a man twenty-five years younger than his seventy years complement an
attentiveness, charm, and unflappability so composed it wavers between
being reassuring and unnerving. Sylvia, sixty-nine, is attractive,
though she is emphatically not a member of upper society’s obsessively
primped grande-dame school. Her intense commitment to social issues of
truth and fairness, as she describes it, seems more credible because
she eschews the more artificial cosmetic blandishments wealthy women
her age so often seize upon. That, I guess, is another way of saying
that she uses the informality of an unapologetic ’60s radical to her
Of course, this couple didn’t get to be political
kingmakers on looks alone. Their way with people-and they know
absolutely everybody-is unbeatable. Sam is unfailingly engaging and
solicitous. It is Sylvia who peppers their interlocutors with
questions. What came out of that Regents’ meeting? Did they know
So-and-So was considering a run for City Council? As the respect-payers
depart, Sylvia makes blunt cracks about who this one supported in a
recent race, or why that one is so dead wrong about some issue-never
mind the strange guy with the pen sitting across the table from her.
Sylvia’s indiscretions, most of which are so spot-on you can only
laugh, Sam exchanges glances with me, as though asking, "What can I do?
She says what she wants."
Everyone, including Sylvia herself,
describes her as the more "acerbic" or "sharp" of the two. Their worst
adversaries-none of whom cared to speak on record-prefer the word
"rude," although "blunt" actually seems the best compromise. She likes
to get to the point. This fits with their friends’ description of them
as inveterate "busybodies," people with a compulsion, as Sylvia says,
"to know what is really going on."
"I’m just always fascinated
when people aren’t curious about people," she tells me. "How can you
not be curious and interested in what’s going on? How do you live like
Appetites for constantly up-to-date information require
ceaseless interaction with literally hundreds of plugged-in
people-something the two have managed to pull off for decades. Sylvia
measures and assesses new people closely, in a way that seems
simultaneously wary, skeptical, and almost shy. She is more ears than
eyes, and often avoids direct visual contact until she’s figured out
your game. When she finally does meet your gaze it comes like
punctuation to an assertion-that, for example, John Edwards‘s moment has come and gone. That Hillary Clinton is all wrong for the changes that have to be made. And that Barack Obama, who is their guy for ’08, is the rare politician to have heightened her understanding of key issues and not vice versa.